Late burst thwarts Wexford
Strong-finishing Kilkenny hit back from six-point deficit
Kilkenny's ability to launch successful late bursts is legendary and, by the same unfortunate token, Wexford's history includes a long list of missed opportunities from favourable positions.
Kilkenny 3-14 Wexford 2-14
Both factors combined in Innovate Wexford Park on Wednesday where, depending on one's county allegiance, the Cats either performed the mother and father of all comebacks or the home side threw away a great chance to reach an All-Ireland final.
This Leinster Intermediate championship decider was certainly Wexford's to lose just under twelve minutes into the second-half when Kilkenny goalkeeper Kevin Nolan was too casual altogether in dealing with a Danny Martin Carroll attempt which dropped short.
Nicky Kirwan nipped in to hook him as he advanced, with young Jack Pettit on hand to drive the breaking ball into a gaping net off his left just before losing his balance.
The goal stretched the Wexford lead to 2-12 to 2-6 and, with wind advantage in their favour, hopes were high that a repeat of the provincial final success of two years ago in Nowlan Park was on the cards.
Unfortunately though, a team featuring a lot of players with limited inter-county experience lacked the cuteness to see it out. They were outscored by 1-8 to 0-2 in the last 17 minutes plus added time, leaving Kilkenny to look forward to next month's All-Ireland final against Clare.
The visiting mentors showed their complete disregard for sentiment by substituting netminder Nolan less than two minutes after his gaffe. Their liveliest forward, Mark Bergin, who had moved to the right wing for the second-half, then got the comeback in motion with a point before Conor Tobin followed suit to leave four between them.
Kilkenny targeted the right corner of Wexford's defence repeatedly as Billy Ryan's pace was too much for Aaron Maddock to handle. The attacker fired low and wide from a Jeff Brennan delivery after racing away from his marker, and this let-off was followed by a pressure-easing Wexford point from John Doyle after a pass from left to right by Jack Kelly who had recovered from his broken toe sustained in the semi-final win against Galway (2-13 to 2-8).
Ryan was then stopped unceremoniously in his tracks by Joe O'Connor, with a long delay ensuing while his left thigh was strapped before Mark Bergin knocked over the free.
Danny Martin Carroll caught a Richie Kehoe clearance but was hooked as he tried to make room, while Billy Dunne and Jack Pettit posted wides as Wexford struggled to make the most of limited chances.
The opportunities were arriving more frequently at the other end, and Mark Bergin made it a three-point game before Kilkenny's decisive third goal arrived in the 53rd minute. Ryan's last act before finally succumbing to his injury and limping off was to serve as the middle man in a move started by star man Bergin and finished by influential substitute Richie Leahy who brought the sides level.
To be fair to Wexford, the initial response was gutsy as less than one minute later a Danny Martin Carroll handpass found Nicky Kirwan who restored their lead (2-14 to 3-10).
Alas, the Slaneysiders were over-run in the closing stages by their strong-finishing neighbours. Joe O'Connor dropped an effort short at the town end and Jack Pettit struck a wide before goalscorer Leahy won a 50-50 ball on the left and knocked over a sweet leveller.
A Tommy Dwyer delivery was safely gathered by replacement netminder Aaron Duggan, with Conor Tobin edging Kilkenny ahead by 3-12 to 2-14 from a Bergin pass before Dwyer's long-range free was cleared.
Billy Dunne registered the last of Wexford's eight wides (Kilkenny had 15), and the eventual winners' full-back, Tom Aylward, was seen at his very best in added time when he caught and cleared two dangerous balls into the square in quick succession from John Doyle and substitute Jake Firman respectively.
A brilliant turn and point by ex-Good Counsel man John Walsh was followed by the closing score from substitute Shane Donnelly as Kilkenny completed one of their trademark comebacks. Wexford did mount one late attack in search of an equalising goal, but Firman over-hit a handpass to Jack Kelly and the danger was averted by Jason Cleere, who later stood in to accept the cup from Leinster Chairman John Horan as team captain Nicky Cleere had left the ground for treatment on a finger injury.
Given how 'green' this team was in terms of experience, with some notable exceptions in Richie Kehoe, Tommy Dwyer, Gary Moore and Nicky Kirwan, it was a decent achievement to be so close to a Kilkenny side entitled to their second-best Senior pick like Wexford. Yet for all that, the sense of frustration felt by supporters was only natural given that the underdogs held the balance of power moving into the last quarter.
Simon Donohoe's promotion to the Seniors against Cork led to the only change in personnel from the Galway game, with Nicky Kirwan starting and Joe O'Connor moving from attack to defence in the subsequent re-shuffle.
Wexford captain Richie Kehoe won the toss and opted to face the elements first, and this appeared a wise choice when the home side went in at the break boasting a 0-10 to 1-6 lead.
For once Kilkenny had been wayward in their shooting, firing four wides in the opening eight minutes as Tommy Dwyer twice gave Wexford the lead from frees, only for Jack Langton and Nicky Cleere (free) to reply.
Kilkenny's first goal in the ninth minute was the product of a beautifully-weighted pass from the right wing by John Walsh who picked out Mark Bergin racing through and, although Billy Dunne managed a hook, the number eleven beat Darragh Hughes from close range at the second attempt (1-2 to 0-2).
Wexford recovered well to get back on level terms early in the second quarter, with points from Jack Pettit and Kilkenny's Nicky Cleere followed by a run of three on the trot from Nicky Kirwan, Danny Martin Carroll and Ryan Mahon.
And the sides were level on another three occasions over the next ten minutes, with slender Kilkenny leads reeled in twice by Tommy Dwyer (free) and Pettit, before another placed ball by Dwyer was cancelled out by Mark Bergin.
Dwyer missed his sole free of the half for the third Wexford wide, after two earlier efforts from play by Gary Moore, but he converted one from 63 metres close to the right sideline in added time after a foul on Moore to give his side that 0-10 to 1-6 lead.
The start to the second-half was perfect from Wexford's point of view. Darragh Hughes drove his first wind-aided puck-out after a Kilkenny wide to the 20-metre line, with Ryan Mahon battling for it as defenders converged.
Nicky Kirwan weighed in to aid his attacking colleague, and it appeared that he got the last Wexford touch for a scrambled goal although a back might have inadvertently knocked it over the line.
Either way, it was a tonic to stretch the lead to 1-10 to 1-6 so soon, but Kilkenny responded after two more wides.
Jason Cleere's centre escaped the grasp of full-back Seán Murphy who was solid otherwise, and substitute Shane Donnelly slipped a handpass to Billy Ryan who drilled the ball to the net.
Two more successful frees from Tommy Dwyer showed that Wexford weren't prepared to wilt though, and when the persistence of Nicky Kirwan and the opportunism of Jack Pettit produced that second goal, they were very much in the driving seat.
Sadly, the rest of the script is an all too familiar one as Kilkenny's ball-winning backs laid the platform for their come-from-behind victory as they started to mop up possession against a rapidly-fading Wexford attack.
Wexford: Darragh Hughes (Naomh Eanna); Aaron Maddock (St. Martin's), Seán Murphy (Buffers Alley), Kevin Sheridan (Oulart-The Ballagh); Joe O'Connor (St. Martin's), Richie Kehoe (Faythe Harriers, capt.), Jack Kelly (Rapparees); Billy Dunne (Oulart-The Ballagh), Tommy Dwyer (Ferns St. Aidan's, 0-7 frees); John Doyle (St. Patrick's, 0-1), Danny Martin Carroll (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown, 0-1), Gary Moore (Glynn-Barntown); Nicky Kirwan (Oulart-The Ballagh, 1-2), Jack Pettit (Our Lady's Island, 1-2), Ryan Mahon (Rapparees, 0-1). Subs. - Jake Firman (St. Martin's) for Mahon (43), Eoin Doyle (Shelmaliers) for Carroll (58), also Ben O'Connor (Oulart-The Ballagh), Dermot O'Leary (St. Patrick's), Donal Shanley (St. Fintan's), Michael O'Hanlon (Horeswood), Ross Donohoe (Buffers Alley), Shane Murphy (St. James'), Patrick O'Connor (St. Martin's).
Kilkenny: Kevin Nolan; Evan Cody, Tom Aylward, Luke Hickey; Jason Cleere, Conor Delaney, Jack McGrath; Jack Langton (0-2), Shane Murphy; Conor Tobin (0-2), Mark Bergin (1-4, 0-1 free), Nicky Cleere (capt., 0-2, 1 free); Seán Morrissey, Billy Ryan (1-0), John Walsh (0-2). Subs. - Shane Donnelly (0-1) for N. Cleere, inj. (29), Jeff Brennan for Murphy (HT), Richie Leahy (1-1) for Morrissey (40), Aaron Duggan for Nolan (44), Rory Hickey for Ryan, inj. (54).
Referee: Michael Murtagh (Westmeath).